As the disease has faded in West Africa, survivors now wonder how they will survive a new crisis: a lack of work
In MONROVIA, Liberia
The disease had left her with almost nothing, but when she heard that the Americans were hiring, Josephine Dolley pulled out her best blue jeans.
She let her long braided hair down. She put on a freshly ironed maroon blouse instead of the stained cotton shirt she wore in the slum. And the hope of New Kru Town — a 31-year-old woman who was just two semesters from a college degree — set out through this vast shantytown in search of that rarest of prizes in today’s Liberia.
Correction: This story has been updated to correct an inaccurate assertion that Josephine Dolley worked for a month without pay in an Ebola education program overseen by the aid group Mercy Corps. Dolley now acknowIedges that she left the job after six days; the humanitarian organization says she never returned to seek compensation. The article also failed to seek and include fuller information from Mercy Corps and its Liberian partner on salaries. Mercy Corps says its partner organization in Monrovia offered Dolley positions paying $50 per month and $130 per month, rather than $25 and $100, as Dolley said. Mercy Corps says the local partner also paid Dolley $25 for transportation. A video that ran with the story, and a photo caption, have been amended to reflect the changes.
A year after the World Health Organization declared an Ebola outbreak in West Africa, it is fading. But the disease has cut a deep gash through neighborhoods such as this one in Monrovia. More than 4,200 Liberians are dead. The economy is barely sputtering back to life following months in which panicked investors fled and residents deserted fields and factories, fearing the insidious disease.
Nine months ago, Dolley was making $720 a month as a music instructor and secretary, well above the median income. It was enough to pay her tuition and to buy an acre of land near the beach to build a house.
She had a path laid out for herself, and she had given that path a name: the Score of Life.
Before Ebola struck, Dolley was scoring well. She had two children and a kind, broad-shouldered husband named Joshua. She was an icon in New Kru Town, a member of the country’s striving postwar generation, so successful and self-possessed that the whole neighborhood started calling her “Mommy” when she was in her 20s.
Then the illness erupted. It swept through the home where Dolley lived with her extended family. They died one after the other. Her husband. Her two young sons. The 22-year-old neighbor she had taken in, Emmanuel. Every single person died — 29 relatives in all. Everyone except her.
“No one else went through what Josephine went through,” said George Caulde, one of her neighbors.
Now, Dolley was walking into a small church where an American aid group was welcoming potential employees. Paper posters of Jesus hung on the bright blue walls. Dolley beamed with remembered confidence as she settled into a plastic chair near the back of the room.
She had heard that Mercy Corps was paying people to carry out some kind of public survey. The job would last only a few months, but it was a reliable salary.
“We’ll see how far this goes,” she whispered.
The six children Josephine Dolley took in — all orphans because of Ebola — play with others outside their house in Monrovia. Dolley lost 29 relatives, including her husband and children, to the disease.
Work had always given Dolley not only money but a sense of purpose. Now she could feel herself falling apart.
Just a few days earlier, she sat under a mango tree next to her old house, staring at her cellphone. It had been three months and 13 days since Emmanuel died. She knew the date because she sent herself a text message after his body was carried away.
“Eman died Saturday 24th. Wednesday at 2 in d morning.”
On this warm January evening, she read the text message again, as though trying to conjure Emmanuel from the few lines she had typed as a kind of obituary. But where he and her two boys had once played, there were now six other children. Dolley had brought them back from the Ebola treatment unit when she was discharged about three months earlier. They had recovered, but their parents had died.
This was her new family: six little strangers, ages 2 to 14. Makeshift households of survivors had sprouted in other neighborhoods, too. Ebola may have receded, but relatives still feared taking in orphans who had had the disease. “I will take them,” Dolley told the clinic. It didn’t occur to her that, as an Ebola survivor, she would face the stigma, too, making it difficult to get a job.
Beyond Ebola: Building a family of strangers
When the Ebola virus struck Liberia, Josephine Dolley was living with her family in the capital city of Monrovia. Within weeks, she had lost almost everything and everyone, but somehow, not hope. (Whitney Leaming/The Washington Post)
Dolley was good at math and had earned all A’s in high school. After the civil war ended in 2003, she and thousands of other Liberians set their sights on college. Her major was accounting.
Now, these were the numbers she was juggling. Rent would cost 30 U.S. dollars a month for one room in her old house. School would cost about $40 a year for each child. The women who sold scrawny three-inch fish door-to-door were getting tired of giving Dolley handouts, and soon she would have to start paying them, too.
The demands came from all sides.
“I want Josephine to buy a house so I can live in it,” said her mother, who had stayed outside Monrovia during the epidemic.
“I’m hungry,” said her cousin.
“I need 350 [Liberian] dollars to register for school,” said Angeline, the oldest of her new children, an amount equivalent to about four U.S. dollars.
Dolley sat under the mango tree, her back to the children. She knew that even as her family members leaned on her, they worried during moments like this, when she recoiled into herself.
“They think I’m going to kill myself,” she said.
The next morning, though, she awoke with new determination.
Since she had returned from the Ebola center, Dolley had been sleeping, along with her mother and the six children, on the floor of a neighbor’s house. It was the kind of generosity that has prevented Ebola survivors from dying of hunger or living on the street. But Dolley knew it wouldn’t last.
Her old six-room house had faded blue walls and boarded-up windows. “UNICEF” was scrawled in chalk above the door, from the days when the relief organization brought assistance.
For months, she had walked by the house quickly, averting her eyes.
But on this Wednesday morning, she walked up the four steps that led to a dark hallway.
“That’s where my aunt lived,” she said, peering into one room.
“Eight people died here,” she said in front of another. Her brothers, cousins and uncles had been in other rooms.
The room at the end of the hall was locked.
“That was ours,” she said.
Stuffed animals are hung out to dry after being washed in Monrovia, Liberia.
The idea of moving back made her shiver. But it was the cheapest rent in New Kru Town.
After Dolley went back out and sat down under the mango tree, a man approached her selling pillows. With six orphans sleeping on the floor, pillows were on her wish list. She looked at the salesman.
“Nah, I’m broke,” she said.
So, it seemed, was everyone in New Kru Town. Nearby, Nintos Roberts, the neighborhood’s most recent Ebola survivor, huddled in a one-room hut. The disease had left him withered and hopeless.
“We’ve got enough to eat once a day. That’s it,” said Roberts, 38, standing next to his three young children.
The World Bank put it this way recently: “The socio-economic impacts of Ebola in Liberia and Sierra Leone are far-reaching and persistent.”
Dolley put it this way: “I was doing real well, and now I’ve got nothing.”
But the next afternoon, she received a tip. Mercy Corps was hiring.
The session at Rock Community Church started with a round of icebreakers. Everyone had to choose a word that began with the same letter as their first name.
Dolley stood up.
“I’m Joy Josephine,” she told the room with a wide smile.
As she watched the Mercy Corps presentation, though, doubts crept into her mind. Nearly $1 billion in aid had poured into Liberia, but Dolley worried that much of it was being diverted into the wrong hands.
“You’ve got to be careful because a lot of the people involved in this are crooks,” she whispered in the back of the room.
Still, Dolley stayed for the free lunch. No one had mentioned the salary yet.
When she returned to New Kru Town, she gave her adopted 6-year-old son asthma medication that cost about $1 and bought mosquito spray for $2. Her elderly neighbor was sitting outside her old house, getting drunk. She was rail-thin and wild-eyed, with matted gray hair.
“She does this every night,” Dolley said. “Soon she’ll start to cry.”
And then she did, a soft weeping. Dolley had listened to it constantlysince the woman’s son had died of Ebola.
Dolley mulled over the possible job. She had spent the day at a meeting about raising awareness of Ebola. Experts considered this a key part of keeping the disease from flaring up again. But she thought the effort should have begun six months earlier, before her aunt came back to the crowded family home after attending a traditional burial, showing symptoms.
“I’m just not sure about it,” Dolley said before going to sleep on the floor.
Dolley attends a job training session with Mercy Corps, a nongovernmental organization that is working to raise awareness of Ebola.
The next day, the Mercy Corps employees handed out new smartphones for prospective employees to file data as they conducted their surveys. People started taking selfies with them. There was a buffet of free rice and beans. Dolley piled the food on her plate.
Then the participants were sent out to conduct a trial survey. Dolley and three others walked to a small house where two women were sitting outside. They took out their cellphones and began reading questions from the screens.
“How would you describe your financial status?” Dolley asked stiffly.
“Average,” one of the women said.
“How many sick people did you know in your community?”
The woman shook her head.
“I can’t count anymore.”
The women were clearly annoyed by the questions. Dolley understood that fatigue.
People had been coming to her house, too, asking questions.
“But we haven’t gotten any benefits, so we stopped answering,” Dolley said, walking back to the church. Nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, conducted such surveys to gauge behaviors and the level of awareness about Ebola. But Dolley saw little impact.
A few hours later, she was back in New Kru Town. Some of the kids were bathing by splattering themselves from a bucket of water in the dirt. The youngest orphan, 2-year-old Constance, waddled up to Dolley in a red dress.
“Constance, you’re looking fine,” Dolley exclaimed, happily.
Dolley couldn’t bear to tell the children about the job. She could hardly believe it herself. But that afternoon, one of the women who had recruited her for the position had told Dolley what she would be paid: only $25 a month, she later recounted. She could make more selling fish.
The contracts were managed by local organizations, like the one that had recruited Dolley, and not Mercy Corps, said Laura Keenan, a spokeswoman for the group, based in Portland, Ore. Mercy Corps officials later told The Post that the position paid $50 and that Dolley had received $25 for transportation to the training sessions.
As Dolley stood near the mango tree, another group of local aid workers with clipboards walked by, waving. They were on their own Ebola awareness campaign, with their own questions, and like everyone else in New Kru Town, they knew her story.
Dolley stared at them.
“They don’t dare come over here,” she muttered angrily.
On Sunday morning, Dolley and her six children put on their church clothes, secondhand dresses and button-down shirts.
“The church helps us all get through this,” she said.
She had always dreamed of being a singer. At the Ebola treatment unit, or ETU, she wrote songs while her family members died.
“When you’re in the ETU, what saves you is your mind,” she said.
Now, singing with the choir at the front of the cinder-block church, she waved her arms above her head.
“The spirit takes control,” she crooned.
“Every setback you have can be taken care of if you submit yourself to God,” the Rev. John Fefegula, the pastor of Faith Temple, said when it came time for his sermon. Behind him, Dolley nodded.
The previous night, she had moved back into the room where she and her family had fallen ill. She found the old key and opened the lock. She swept the floor. She tried to make the room look as normal as she could — a mosquito net draped from the ceiling, a carpet on the floor. As she expected, the landlord came by, asking for money.
“I’m working on it,” Dolley said, and she was allowed to stay.
The next day, the landlord, Margaret Brown, came by again. She was a large woman with a round face and was once a friend of the family. But she wasn’t offering Dolley a break.
Dolley, seated, speaks with Angeline, 14, the eldest of the children she took in, outside the family’s home. Makeshift households of survivors have been created in the aftermath of the Ebola epidemic, which killed thousands of Liberians and left many children without parents.
“We’re all hurting here,” Brown said.
Dolley decided she would reach out to distant family members. Public schools were reopening, and she needed cash for uniforms and fees.
“I’ll go door by door,” she told her mother, sitting under the mango tree.
“That’s not what we’re gonna do,” her mother responded. “We can’t ask them.”
The two argued. Eventually Dolley decided that she couldn’t invite judgment upon her family.
“We’ll find another way,” she said hopelessly.
It felt as though all of New Kru Town was in despair.
The previous night, Roberts, the Ebola survivor, had tried to kill himself, swallowing a pile of pills.
Now, the old woman next door had started drinking and crying gain. A young man chased a young woman and threw a picture frame in front of Dolley’s front step, shattering the glass.
“What are y’all doing?” Dolley screamed.
She got up from under the mango tree and started walking the hundred yards to the beach. A man, visibly drunk, trailed her.
“The NGOs mark our houses, but we don’t get a goddamn thing,” he said.
About a week later, Dolley got a call from the group that had hired her for the Mercy Corps program. She was told they could pay her $100 a month, she said. (Mercy Corps said the salary was actually $130). It was more than enough to make her change her mind.
The job did not end well.
Dolley initially said she worked for a month and was not paid. She later acknowledged that she worked only for six days, carrying out surveys, before leaving to attend a memorial service for her husband in northern Liberia. When she came back to the capital, she said, she quarreled with a colleague and didn’t return to the job.
Officials at the partner group’s office in Monrovia said they had not been contacted by Dolley about any payment issues. Mercy Corps said it was willing to pay Dolley for the six days she had worked but was unable to do so because she had not provided details about her whereabouts.
In early March, while taking a break under the mango tree, Dolley heard the news from her neighbors: Liberia was down to zero Ebola cases.
The epidemic that had terrified the world was ending, or at least it felt that way (another case would later emerge). But one year later, it had robbed Liberians of their children, their jobs and the lives they had plotted for themselves.
“We’ve got nothing,” Dolley said.